Jury Calls for Poisoner's Death

Times Staff Writer

A jury called Wednesday for the death of Angelina Rodriguez, a 35-year-old woman who poisoned her husband with a lethal combination of antifreeze and an oleander plant at their Montebello home.

Rodriguez could become the 15th woman on California's death row, joining four others from Los Angeles County. Only four women have been executed in the state since 1893.

As the verdict was read in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom, Rodriguez looked down and put her face in her hand. The jury's seven men and five women deliberated little more than a day before deciding that she should be executed.

Jurors found her guilty last month of murdering her schoolteacher husband, Frank, in September 2000 to get the $250,000 life insurance policy he had applied for two months earlier.

Rodriguez is also under investigation in Santa Barbara in the 1993 death of her 13-month-old infant daughter, who died after swallowing part of a pacifier, according to Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Doug Sortino.

Jurors in the L.A. case said it had been agonizing to recommend that a woman be executed. Several said they had been swayed by Rodriguez's apparent lack of remorse.

"We were holding out hope that, throughout the trial, we would see some redeeming factor," said the foreperson, who asked not to be identified.

Though jurors empathized with Rodriguez because of her troubled childhood, the foreperson said that wasn't enough to offset her "heinous crimes."

Rodriguez also was convicted of threatening a witness. That woman told investigators the defendant had spoken to her of marital problems and mentioned possibly killing Frank Rodriguez instead of divorcing him, because of his life insurance policy.

Angelina and Frank Rodriguez met near San Luis Obispo when they worked together at a boot camp for troubled juveniles. They married in April 2000 and moved to Montebello.

Rodriguez, a 41-year-old teacher for the Los Angeles Unified School District, died Sept. 9, 2000, after ingesting a lethal dose of antifreeze. Prosecutors believe that his wife put enough of the poisonous oleander in his meals to send him to the hospital and then killed him at home by lacing his Gatorade with five or six shots of antifreeze. Investigators never determined exactly how the substances had been placed in the victim's food or drink.

Rodriguez called her husband's insurer the day he died, but the company refused to release any money until a cause of death had been determined. She was arrested in Paso Robles, Calif., in February 2001 after unwittingly providing investigators with information that led to a determination of the cause of death, prosecutors said.

She told detectives that she had received an anonymous cell phone call suggesting that investigators check for antifreeze, prosecutor Sortino said. Cell phone records showed no incoming call during that period.

Sortino said Rodriguez had tried to frame a former co-worker for the murder, directing detectives toward him, providing a possible motive and even fabricating evidence.

Court-appointed defense attorney David Houchin said the case had been difficult because there was strong evidence that his client had committed the murder and that she might have had something to do with the death of her own child.

"There was not a lot of defense in the guilt phase," he said, referring to the first part of a capital murder case. Houchin said he had focused instead on trying to save Rodriguez's life by presenting evidence that she had suffered repeated sexual abuse as a child.

"I've done more than a few of these, and this was as tough as they come," Houchin said.

Superior Court Judge William Pounders set sentencing for Dec. 12. He can disregard the jurors' recommendation, but that seldom happens. If he sentences her to death, it is unlikely that Rodriguez will be executed soon.

The most recent California execution of a woman was in 1962, when Elizabeth Ann "Ma" Duncan was put to death for hiring two men to murder her pregnant daughter-in-law.

"I don't get any great pleasure asking for death," Sortino said. "But there are certain cases that just warrant it.... The jury did the right thing."

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